Paul Berman’s celebration of the changes in home and family over the past 50 years is the truth, but not the whole truth.
Fifty years ago, in theory, if not always in practice, family members were locked into restricted roles. Men went to work and were largely absent from the home; women stayed home and were largely absent from the community. The end of those restrictive roles has been a benefit to families like mine. Both my wife and I have careers, so our income does not rely on just one of us and is therefore more secure. When our children were young, we worked part-time, so each of us has strong bonds with both of our children. Most of the fathers I know have similarly strong connections with their children, and most of the women I know work. In contrast, when I was a toddler, my father left for work before I woke up in the morning and came home after I was asleep; he often worked Saturdays as well. My mother, a bright woman, didn’t go to college and left work when she married. Once the children grew up, she was bored, but when she tried to go back to work, she found she wasn’t up to it after all those years.
But one shouldn’t ignore the other side of the loosening of family roles. The expectations of the 1950s put a ceiling on how good family life could be, but they also put a floor on how bad family life could be. In the past 50 years, as divorce rates and single parenthood have soared, many children have had their lives fall through that floor. As many men and some women have felt free to abandon the obligations of home and family, the poverty rate and suicide rate of the young have risen. On balance, despite the advantages, home and family life has deteriorated in the past 50 years. The baby boomers may be the most pro-child generation in history, but they are also the most anti-child, and the latter outweighs the former.
Paul Berman’s article celebrates freedom, but two concepts of the word freedom have emerged in the past 50 years, one good and one (for lack of a better word) evil. The good freedom might be called freedom of identity, or of lifestyle. The idea of America as a land of social conformity is mostly gone, and it won’t be missed.
The evil idea of freedom is freedom from responsibility, which comes in both a “liberal” and “conservative” version, depending on which responsibilities one does not want to meet. Under the liberal version, many people do not accept that they have personal responsibilities to work and earn their own living and to take care of their family members. Under the conservative version, many people do not believe that they have social responsibilities to their communities, to the less well off, to the rest of the world. In the past 30 years too many children have grown up without the security of two loving parents. In their adulthood these children will labor to pay back the public debts run up by their irresponsible elders.